Sunday, 26 October 2008
Laugh, 'Mr Paxo'
...or, 'Ridi, pagliaccio'. And weep, those of you with any interest in a new take on the hoary old Cav 'n Pag double-bill who failed to catch the ENO production, for it was the final performance of the run I saw on Thursday (don't worry - it will surely be back another season). Anything Richard Jones attempts is worth seeing, love it or hate it, for its skewed or visionary approach; but I'd say, along with my friend the former ENO repetiteur and pianist to the stars Phillip Thomas, that this Pagliacci ranks among his most extraordinary shows yet.
The radical, but risky, premise was to commission writer Lee Hall to provide a completely overhauled English performing version. I guess Jones had the concept of turning the Italian travelling players into a group of English rep comedians and sitcom stars in the 1970s. Hall's 'translation' could have fallen flat with a lesser director, and I was delighted to be proved wrong in doubting that either could sustain the conceit convincingly when the players stage their harlequinade - here, a bedroom farce called 'Ding, Dong', along the lines of the long-running 'No Sex Please, We're British' (for some reason the poster on the wall of Matt Lucas's sleazy impresario in Little Britain, advertising 'Sex Please, We're Not British', makes me laugh whenever I think about it). The sequence of scenes - designed by the wonderful Ultz - that unfold behind the orange curtain are always surprising: the vividly recreated street scene outside a rep theatre in the north, where a little girl steps out of the crowd to do a delighted little line dance in homage to her TV idols; the stage and the auditorium where Nelly (Nedda) lives out her dreams; the four dressing rooms in one of which Kenny 'Mr Paxo' Evans (Canio) rages and weeps; and finally, the split-screen effect of both the auditorium and the stage, seen here in the second of four ENO production images by Robert Workman before the curtain rises on 'Ding, Dong':
Cavalleria Rusticana, a score with moments of surging passion but infinitely weaker musical and dramatic construction poses more problems: what to do with the half-hour of vignette preambles where absolutely nothing happens? Jones sets the action in a village hall-cum-storeroom for Alfio's comestibles, and turns the village people into joyless drones: was there a point being made that not all Italians, least of all Sicilians caught up in a vendetta mentality, are jolly and vivacious, just as not all Brits in the 1970s were buttoned-up and grey? Jones slightly overplays his hand in the constant presence of a young man with cerebral palsy playing another young man with cerebral palsy. Otherwise, nothing remarkable goes on here except for the claustrophobic crowding-in of the chorus in the small room and an especially nasty murder.
Musically, both performances had their distinguished elements. In Cav, which started orchestrally very strikingly in Ed Gardner's hands but became rather stodgy, a million miles from what an Abbado or a Muti would make of it, there were a very nearly Italianate tenor Turiddu (Peter Auty, apparently the original treble voice for 'Walking in the Air' before Aled Jones did the commercial version) and a rather wild but not at all bad mezzo Santuzza (Ana Ibarra). Pag had a slightly wooden Kenny, Geraint Dodd, who did let rip with sobs in the voice for the big number but didn't spread the right psycopathic terror in the final scene. Nelly was another singer I'm happy to count as a friend, the ineffable Mary Plazas, who as usual provided the classiest legato singing of the evening and proved a surprisingly good comedienne in 'Ding, Dong'. Here she is surrounded by mute members of the company.
All hell was let loose on a certain website when I waxed lyrical over Christopher Purves's Tony. I'd already said that I thought he made a more appropriate Wozzeck on stage than the Lieder-lovely Matthias Goerne, and this brought some mockery from certain Brit-hating Americans who hadn't even seen him in the part. I should explain that I was completely ignorant of the irrational hatred directed against each and every British singer from those in the USA smarting (and probably with some justice, who knows) from the engagement of British administrators and singers when American ones might have got the job in question. About this I don't particularly care - why should I, when I don't live there? All I want is to note a performance that has moved or thrilled me, and since I happen to live in London that's just as likely to be a UK singer at ENO as an international artist at the Royal Opera. But this extolling of Purves's vivid theatrical skills - OK, no Fischer-Dieskau as a voice but certainly the next Andrew Shore as a stage animal - brought forth extraordinary bile on the site. One fanatic screamed in no less than half a dozen posts that I was provincial, like a weird old lady from Des Moines, that I didn't even know I was provincial, which made it hilariously funny.
Oh, enough already. I'm out of there (especially as the 'hostess' also has a weird thing about 'fucking Brits'). J has always told me that blog threads are a school playground where the bullies shout the loudest. And, sadly, for a second time, he's been proved right. The regrettable thing is that I really learned a great deal from half a dozen knowledgeable souls, exchanged ideas, bought or sought out recordings because others had said they were personal favourites (we did especially well out of a Margaret Price fan posting files which we were able to download). One of these interesting guys, correspondence with whom is to be found at the bottom of the previous entry, has also left in outrage at an especially vindictive attack on Renee Fleming's private life, and he suggests that I invite the wise few to join us here. Well, may they appear if they want to - but no screaming trolls, please: they shall be rebuked and redacted.